19th Century Leaders


Credit: Mary McLeod Bethune Council House NHS, National Archives for Black Women's History

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman (c. 1820-1913) was born a slave in Maryland. After obtaining her own freedom, she successfully helped hundreds of other enslaved people escape to freedom. Subsequently she became the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad.

At the beginning of the Civil War many Northern abolitionists, both black and white, came to the South to help enslaved people who were escaping to Union camps in large numbers. Between 1861 and 1863 Harriet Tubman was stationed at Hilton Head and around Port Royal, South Carolina. Under orders of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, she surveyed and mapped the plantations along the Combahee River. She also worked as a spy/laundress for Confederate soldiers, where she was able to retrieve vital information that she relayed to the Union army. Tubman was not paid by the government for her work as a scout and spy, but she did receive government rations. She later relinquished the rations because of public criticism from blacks. To support herself and to pay for supplies, Tubman sold pies and root beer.

In June 1863, she and a military team headed by Col. James Montgomery raided various plantations on the Combahee River for food and supplies. They subsequently destroyed nearby infrastructure and freed more than 700 slaves. The raid was successful because of Tubman’s extensive knowledge of the area, which allowed her to guide three steamboats past Confederate mines placed near the riverbank. The majority of the newly freed men joined the Union army.

Sadly, Tubman lived most of her life in poverty, even though her roles as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, an abolitionist, and champion of human rights were recognized with numerous awards and honors throughout her life. It was not until 1899 that she received a military pension for her service to the United States Army.